Covid-19 and the need for a new social contract

dr Andreana Baeva-Motusic, President of the European Business Association

Andreana Baeva-Motusic during the Economic Forum in 2018.

Our entire family got Covid-19 and my perceptions of the current situation have been reflected through its lens, so this is a subjective and personal piece of writing. Our experience with Covid-19 has been very challenging, even traumatic, despite the fact that we did not end up being hospitalized. We had numerous symptoms, such as persistent chest pain, breathlessness, fever, chills, joint and muscle pain, throat pain, nausea, dizziness, and kidney pain, and we were mostly bed-ridden for two entire months. We got sick during the first peak of the epidemy in the UK and because of our age, the fact that we were not struggling with breathing, and the lack of hospital capacities, we were diagnosed over the telephone as not emergency cases, which meant that we were left to care for ourselves and our children alone at home without medical assistance of any kind. A lot of the procedures and expectations we have previously taken for granted proved to be unreliable and less certain than we thought they were. What did we learn from the two months we were stuck in bed attempting to both self-diagnose and self-medicate, and struggling to complete even basic daily chores?

  • We learned that in novel situations, the officially provided information is neither reliable nor sufficient. The lack of previous knowledge and research on Covid-19 means that the experts are placed in the same position as the general public: they do not have complete and reliable information about what is happening and what can be expected. The medical staff we talked to over the telephone could not help us much with diagnosis or treatment. They did not know much about the course of the disease, and no non-emergency tests were being carried out. Antibiotics were prescribed to us over the telephone, on “just in case” basis, and that was the only medical care we received. Additionally, we lacked information about what was happening to us and what could be expected. As my husband has a more technical way of thinking and likes to follow guidelines and procedures in evaluating situations, he truly struggled throughout the whole experience. The doctors could not help, the science was lagging in identifying what exactly was happening, and state administrators failed to deliver trustworthy solutions. A more intuitive way of approaching the situation proved better in handling the crisis, and we learned that speed of action, but also a certain dose of composure, is what works in critical situations. We just had to trust our judgement of the situation, despite the fact that it sometimes went against the information we were receiving from the media and from official public sources.

Just like with any other viruses, we got Covid-19 from our younger daughter although multiple official sources were claiming that that was highly unlikely as children are until now believed to not be likely to develop strong symptoms nor to pass the disease. She was sick for four weeks. As a parent taking care of her, I would not call her sickness “soft” although the UK government classifies it as such as she did not end up in hospital. The symptoms kept coming back, following an unpredictable pattern and keeping us awake for the most part of those 4 weeks. Somewhere in week 2 of our daughter’s sickness, my husband got sick as well.  He never developed any cough or high fever, the symptoms our daughter had had which we were told were universally present with Covid-19, yet he could not get up from bed for the most part of two months. Again, the disease followed an irregular pattern. You would feel almost healthy for a few days, and then a lapse would take place which would make you again very unwell. In certain cases, the psychological impact of Covid-19 is similar to that of a chronic disease rather than a virus, and this was likely the worst part of contracting it. According to official sources, the disease’s course for non-emergency cases is about two weeks. You might get a lapse in the beginning of week 2. Then the situation gets better. Week 2 was indeed horrible, but so were week 5 and week 7. The lack of official information about cases with prolonged symptoms like ours made us question ourselves. Surely, there must be other people going through the same thing and such information would be published by official sources. After about a month and a half of contracting Covid-19, information started emerging that there were many cases where people were sick for prolonged periods of time. It did not come from government sources or from the National Health Service but from individuals who shared their experiences on forums and in online groups. This led to our second observation:

  • In novel situations, information provided directly by the public could be more reliable than that from official sources, if one is vigilant in the selection of online sources. I am well-aware of all the trolling taking place online, and of all the conspiracy theories which are spreading currently through the Internet. It is imperative to be alert, to visit trusted websites and networks, and to verify information through numerous sources. However, media literate people do have good chances of finding relevant information from other people due to the immense numbers of people sharing online, and the nature of online forums which can to a certain extent self-regulate themselves through spontaneous peer reviewing. That does not mean that official sources are not accurate. In the longer run, those have obviously higher value and huge importance in identifying and resolving public challenges. However, because of the responsibility and impact those have on society, it takes a while to write something meaningful which has been verified and confirmed by multiple sources. In contrast, personal experiences but also online peer reviews and comments are available faster than those published in scientific journals. Science is slow, and as said already, in times of crises speed is crucial.
  • I come from an ex-communist country in which the acquiring of facts and numbers was the primary objective of the educational system. Since then I have studied and worked with the educational sectors in a number of countries (most EU countries and the USA). The development of soft skills remains a by-product of any of the educational systems I have worked with, mostly limited to the development of cooperation through teamwork, and presentational skills through public speaking. We are on the threshold of unprecedented automatization and digitalization, processes which are speeded up by the current lock-down, and the skills identified as most needed for the future are creativity, leadership, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, problem solving, decision-making, cognitive flexibility, negotiation etc. The current crisis also indicates risk assessment and planning, and crisis management as crucial for handling challenging situations even on personal level. The traditional educational systems do not develop the above-mentioned soft skills and are even designed to supress them. Children’s natural creativity is discouraged by universal assignments and tests, their leadership criticised as unfriendly and interfering with team work, decision-making is left to the teachers while those who are able to adjust best to the teachers’ expectations are rewarded through praise and higher marks. Crisis management is ultimately about emotional intelligence and the ability to deal with stress, but our children are increasingly stressed and introverted, capsuled in close family units and unable to see the big picture. This current crisis closes us even more in our families, but it could be an opportunity to develop new skills, if approached proactively on a society level.
  • If the educational systems do not adjust to the challenges we face as societies and as individual families, then we as individuals will need to think of alternative ways to provide for our children’s education. Universal state education is not free. It is paid for by taxes, and it should serve a few purposes. One is to create a sense of community which enforces a social contract supported by a vast majority of the society. Another is to prepare children for the job market, so that they can contribute to society while making a living. Yet a third, and most important to me as a parent, is to contribute to the well-being and happiness of children. If traditional schools fail to fulfil their purposes, their value could go down in the eyes of many parents, and a new social contract might become necessary. Most of us are currently home-schooling. There are positive and negative sides to this experience, but we as parents begin to see that there are alternatives to the state system. The number of home-schooled children will likely stay higher after the Covid-19 lock-down is ended and it becomes safe to return to schools. My children have asked me on a number of occasions to home-school them and I have dismissed the idea up until now. However, I am beginning to find this option increasingly attractive as I feel that the one-fits-all approach to education is useful in achieving literacy but ineffective in achieving depth of expertise and thinking. Educational authorities need to prepare to provide more flexibility in incorporating home-schooling with traditional forms of education. The positive aspects of traditional schools, such as the provision of a social environment, the stimulating of learning through competition, and the reduction of stress placed on working parents, should be combined with the more personalized and in-debt learning made possible by home-schooling and individual student work.
  • Crises teach new skills. Our elder daughter was the least affected by Covid-19 member of our family. She was sick for a few days and recovered almost immediately. At the age of 11, she suddenly lost the perpetual protection she had from her parents. There was no mama to help with homework, and no daddy to cook lunch. She matured overnight and became more self-reliable. She had to take care of her younger sister. She also learned how to cook. My husband and I took turns to take care of the kids, but that would usually be for a few hours per day. The rest of the time they were on their own. They had to do everything on their own – dress, eat, cook, clean, organize their days (a big contrast to the pre-planned, packed with activities days their generation is used to) and manage their relationship. I cannot say things functioned smoothly. There was a lot of bickering and mess everywhere, but it put things into perspective for both children not to take health and life for granted. It made them also achieve things on their own which gave them confidence.
  • Women rights are very fragile. We can see that very clearly now when schools are closed, activities cancelled, and the economy in shatters. A research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and UCL Institute of Education (IOE)[1] on 3,500 families in the UK reveals unsurprisingly that in homes where there is a working mother and father, women are doing more chores and spending more time with children. Furthermore, they found that mothers are more likely than fathers to have left paid work since February and among mothers and fathers who are still in paid work, mothers have seen a bigger proportional reduction in hours of work than fathers. In the past century women gradually got more rights and started participating more equally in the work market, but those rights were “bought” by the purchasing of services (cleaning services, babysitting, after-school activities) which are currently unavailable. Additionally, women perform more free services for their families, such as driving children to activities, studying with them, washing and cleaning. Those women who are employed need to juggle childcare with professional employment, which is inhuman and has already led unfortunately, to many putting their careers on hold. With a major recession on the horizon, those jobs will likely never be replaced. It is unclear why up until this day women are considered to perform better at home and worse at the marketplace. Why are we qualified to home-school but do not deserve a salary equal to that of the sons we have educated and raised? How are we able to handle family crises, manage family relations, raise children, yet it is always assumed that those crucial activities are not worthy of a pay, or that we deserve a lower pay in comparison with men. It is crucial time for countries to start considering universal income for its citizens, and the first step in this direction is to give universal income to stay-at-home parents which are the pillar of any society. Even without Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of jobs were to be lost to automation. Instead of artificially maintaining them, we need to pay for work which is performed and will always need to be performed in our families.

 I am not an expert on family violence, but it is evident that staying at home is not safe for victims of domestic abuse. It is terrifying that stay at home measures which have been placed to protect people are parallelly creating a nightmare for many women and children. Social programs providing safe heaven, but also support services such as counselling and education, are crucial for protecting on a fundamental level victims of domestic abuse, and their funding is as important for the health of the economy as is the support for businesses.

  • One cannot rest on one’s laurels. I found that saying accurate both on personal and societal level. Just as the learning of new skills and life-long learning is crucial for the economic well-being but also the personal growth of individuals, countries need to periodically reconsider their political and economic systems. Such a process needs to be institutionalized and carried out by public dialogue in which a broader coalition of citizens should be engaged to evaluate what functions well, what needs to be improved and how public resources should be shared. The technology to do so online in a safe and democratic way exists and should be used. The massive participation in online forums and discussions by the general public is indicating that it is not becoming apolitical, but that its involvement with traditional decision-making is blocked, or at least not as open as it should and could be. With people’s well-being being directly impacted by the current social and economic crises, those could easily turn into a political crisis as well, unless the general public is increasingly listened to and involved in decision-making. Governments’ priorities related to public spending should be based exclusively on people’s preferences to avoid unrest and a collapse of the social contract keeping our societies together.
  • Economically, the current crisis has revealed a number of shortcomings and dependencies in European economies. I am residing in London, and my direct observations are from here, but they seem to apply to most EU economies. Here, in one of the world’s greatest and richest cities, in the 21st century, it has been hard to find commodities such as toilet paper, flour, plastic gloves, face masks and even paracetamol. Our economies have become so dependent on imports, and in the UK’s case on just-in-time inventory management, that we are lacking the ability to produce simple products. Two years ago, when Europe’s last paracetamol plant, Rhodia, closed its doors due to increased competition from China and India, the news passed almost unobserved.[2] Now we are all shocked by the inability to procure raw generic drug ingredients like paracetamol. In a perfect world, market forces will provide for the well-being of citizens. In a flawed world, epidemies and wars block production and hinder transportation, governments provide subsidies and dump cheap products, and economic deprivation leads to unrests. European leaders need to work on perfecting the world by providing economic assistance and support for democratic principles, yet they need to plan for addressing its flaws. Certainly, there is no need to rely on imported paracetamol, and certainly a country which can produce a Rolls-Royce should have the ability to produce a face mask. The production of raw genetic drug ingredients is hardly a charity business – it is a highly profitable sector. By letting our businesses down, we are also letting our citizens down, while losing money in the process. The benefits to a few large corporations cannot and should not outweigh the benefits to society. We need to rejuvenate local production, and to partner with countries we trust. I am all for international cooperation and trade, but mutual trust is the foundation of any personal or business relationship. In this crisis, it is very clear who our friends are, and they are not that far away.

Lastly, my encounter with doctors and medical personnel in the past two months has left me terrified of the conditions they need to work in. The emergency personnel I encountered wore ordinary paper masks, and a plastic cover over their clothes which reminded of a plastic bag with a hole for the head. I cannot believe that this provides any protection for them. I also refuse to believe that an advanced country like the UK cannot do better. The current crisis has an unequally high social impact on people who were already underprivileged. It is also taking a higher toll on key workers who are risking their health on daily basis while people who can work from home are relatively sheltered. In order to preserve the social contract in our societies and continue relying on the services provided by key workers, we need to provide for the well-being of those groups. The pressure on the health system is only going to increase in the future as people who were not emergency cases finally get to hospitals, as routine operations and treatments get rescheduled, as people affected by the social impact start demanding emotional assistance, and as new viruses emerge. Overcoming the consequences of Covid-19 is a long-term process. We cannot afford to exhaust our key workers but also our entire societies before the real fight has begun.

In conclusion, crises need to be approached in a planned way through the establishment and institutionalisation of broad platforms which enable the collection of information but also the involvement in decision-making of a significant number of people from the general public. The relocation of resources and the reorganization of every-day life cannot be done without consultations with the people providing those resources and whose lives those decisions impact. If implemented in an open, genuine and unprejudiced way, such consultations could reinforce the eroding foundations of democracy by coming up with more widely accepted and relevant tenets of an aging social contract. The success of such an approach is preconditioned on the existence of well-educated and healthy citizens, while education and healthcare services are traditionally among the main assets of European economies. European universities, research and medical centres, IT enterprises, and pharmaceutical companies should become the engines for the prosperity of the continent’s residents and economy.

 

[1] Andrew, Alison, Cattan, Sarah, Costa Dias, Monica, Farquharson, Christine, Kraftman, Lucy, Krutikova, SonyaPhimister, Angus and Almudena Sevilla. “How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown?”, 27 May 2020, available online at:  https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14860

[2] Macdonald, Gareth. “Europe’s last paracetamol plant closes doors,” available online at https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2009/01/06/Europe-s-last-paracetamol-plant-closes-its-doors